'What's your favourite book?' is a regular question that bounces among friends, especially if your circle is a creative one. People usually respond with something like: 'Oh gosh, my favourite book! I couldn't possibly choose one!'. Then, after much coaxing and thinking, they come up with three, four, five titles. I've always wanted to be the person who can fire off an answer, and an exceedingly impressive one at that, without having to mull it over for one split second.
I’ve always wished to raise above everyone else by zinging my interlocutor with a super-classic (say War and Peace), or with something that I couldn't put down (maybe Paradise Lost), or with one which has been read for centuries (The Bible), or with a far-fetched book that doesn't even exist, the one with the potential to make me sound either incredibly cultured or conceited depending on who was asking the question.
Amidst all of this mental white noise though, I had discounted one type of book which does not belong to any given bookshop category and which is neither a classic nor enjoys worldwide acclaim. Yet, each one of us can immediately recognise it once we start reading: the book that was written for me. This is the book that, a few lines in, gives you reasons to pause as you double-check the cover. Maybe the author is your most intimate friend who is using an anagram nom de plume. When even the pic on the back cover elicits no recognition, you sit there, baffled; this guy right here, whoever it is, surely seems to have a direct line inside your head.
The book that was written for me is The Creative License by Danny Gregory and I can tell you with no degree of uncertainty that if someone asked me about my favourite book and I replied with this, few would even know it exists. This preoccupies me a great deal because The Creative License wasn’t just written for me; it was written for you too. It was written, as the author puts right at the front, before the table of contents, ‘for you, the artist’.
I came across it by chance, one day when Amazon thought that my checking out The Creative Habit justified vomiting all possible ‘creative’ suggestions on my screen. It wasn’t the creative bit though that sold The Creative License to me, but its subtitle: Giving Yourself Permission To Be The Artist You Truly Are. I found the combination of being creative and permitting oneself to be creative intriguing. It was speaking to me on a subliminal level I didn’t know I could be receptive to. I bought it there and then.
The Creative License looks and feels like a journal; it is not typeset in a standard font but looks handwritten, like this:
Maybe you find such books annoying to read and I can understand that, but in this instance I must urge you not to elude this one. I don’t care how you are going to make the effort, so long as you do. You must read this book, even if through a magnifying lens. Danny begins his introduction with:
‘Too many people seem to feel they are not and cannot ever be creative. They’d love to write or draw or paint or dance or act or play music but are afraid to even try. Some of them also wish they could be more creative professionally, but have taken a career path that makes that seem impossible Others have begun to dabble in creative matter but somehow find themselves blocked or limited or lost, and need help to break through. This book is designed to give you –all of you– something you actually already have: permission to be intensely, brilliantly, wonderfully creative. Even though you probably don’t believe it at this point, this gift is something that only you can give to yourself. It’s not a matter of genetics or social permission or money or talent; it’s just a matter of will.’
From then on, it’s an armchair trip that stops off in places such as Drawing, Journaling, Shock, Sensitization, Resistence, Judgment, Identity, Expanding by analysing anything from making creativity into a habit (a-ha, see here) to broadening it, from kick-starting and learning to see, to blasting your butt out of a rut, from re-connecting with reality, to being comfortable in one’s own creative skin. Once, I lent this book and it was returned before the week was out with a ‘nice, but I don’t draw’. To this day, I cannot articulate my dismay at such a response, for The Creative License isn’t about drawing; it merely uses drawing as a discoursive catalyst of the creative act. Whether you want to try the drawing exercises or not does not change the sub-text: stop stifling your creativity. What happens when we do so? The author says:
‘The ability and the need to be creative are hard-wired into all of us. I speak to so many people who tell me they make things (drawings, souffles, jewelry, movies, pop songs) because they just have to. They can't help it. It's a basic urge, an irrepressible impulse.
Yet an awful lot of people are able to suppress it. They trudge back and forth in a rut, never reinventing a single day. They jump to conclusions about themselves and their abilities and their obligations that they think will help them avoid conflict. They make certain choices that they think will prevent others from being disappointed, shocked or angry.
But deep inside them, a little ember flickers. That ember is their dream, the thing they would really like to do, if only. If only they had the time, the talent, the education, the tools, the money, the support, the freedom. But because they have decided long ago that they can't, they lock that little spark in a big steel box, hoping to suffocate it once and for all, and then they rush on with their chores and obligations. But the ember won't go out. Instead it heats up the steel box, and they start to feel that need again. It gets hotter and the feeling turns to pain. So they reach for an anaesthetic.
Our society is full of anesthetics –drugs, booze, television, mass culture, destructive behaviors, anger, defensiveness, selfishness– all are ways to take us away from experiencing the here and now, from being in touch with our true nature.
When we continue to deny who we truly are and suppress our ability to create, we become crippled and shut down. [...]
Ironically, our society tends to portray artists as dreamers. But those who suppress their creativity are actually the ones living in a dream. An artist is someone who feels and sees reality very intensely. Creativity doesn't mean just making things up out of thin air. It means seeing and feeling the world so vividly that you can put together connections and patterns that help to explain reality. It means you see the beauty in the world rather than trying to hide from it.’
The great merit of this book does not lie in providing an intimate appreciation of Danny's work (although I find this aspect both entertaining and fascinating; it's voyeurism for artists), neither does it hinge upon a great methodology or a specific winning formula hidden among the pages of a secret blank sketchbook only accomplished artists know how to read. The tools and the methods are secondary to what is the author's intense and subtle perception of the difficulties and dilemmas that we all face when the call to creativity is surging within.
Not only can the author pin-point the downfalls of stifling creativity, he can also enthusiastically leap into the realm of inspiration-via-permission by acknowledging that allowing ourselves to pick up the pen/the brush/the pencil/the scalpel/the microphone requires a belief in our abilities before we even know we have them. The realisation that his journal's purpose was to blunt his pains, not reflect them, gave me reasons to ponder about my own perception of creativity as a medium that transforms the mundane into art only by great adversity. Of course in many ways writing remains hard, but it is with a renewed sense of hope and purpose that I now commit my thoughts to paper and screen. When I do so, the difficulties are no longer angry voices putting me down, but distant whispers I barely hear, less prominent in my mind than they have ever been. All from a book 'about' drawing, mind you.
But... did I draw in the end? Yes, the urge was irresistible. And I've learnt that removing one's blinkers puts one on the highway to happiness and that a bigger page is always infinitely better than a smaller one.
Disclaimer: confused by the mix of 'licence' and 'license'? Danny Gregory goes the American way, I go the British one. Here 'licence' is a noun and 'to license' is a verb.